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Baiba Skride Returns to Charm City

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Mozart / M. Haydn / Schubert

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Shostakovich / Janáček

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Souvenir Russe

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Bach / Bartók / Ysaÿe
The last time that Latvian violinist Baiba Skride came to the area was with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2005, and we were not likely to miss the latest chance to hear the 2001 winner of the Queen Elisabeth Competition, in last night's BSO concert at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore. So much the better when, after clean, burnished Lalo last time, she was scheduled to play Alban Berg's tender, sad, gorgeous violin concerto -- a work she has not yet recorded in her series of worthy discs for Sony but hopefully will soon. The lovely Skride, nearing her 30th birthday, is still easy on the eyes -- as Jens has put it so eloquently, not our most important concern, but it doesn't hurt -- and far more importantly, the "Wilhelmj" Stradivarius (1725) in her hands, loaned by the Nippon Music Foundation, produces a silky, puissant, but never strident tone.

This is a most valuable asset for the concerto that turned out to be Berg's final completed composition, a rather luscious work that regularly belies the 12-tone system used to create it. It was Berg's funeral tribute to Manon Gropius, the 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius who had died of polio: little did Berg know that within months of composing it, his own life would come to an end. Although the concerto was commissioned and premiered by a male violinist, Berg cast the solo part as Manon, especially in the apotheosis at the end of the piece, as the solo merges into the first violin section and is borne upward on rising string lines: at this moment, Skride turned her back to the audience to play in unity with the musicians behind her. Her tone on that remarkable Strad was perfect for this suave solo part, and guest conductor Mario Venzago made sure that the orchestra, always tempted to luxuriate in the unusual, prismatic score mixed by the master orchestrator Berg, did not cover her. Skride was marvelous technically, with only a lack of throaty force on the G string and some sour loud double stops less than perfect. The BSO winds gave a solemn quotation of Bach's Es ist genug in the final section, slightly troubled by dissonance in Berg's arrangement.

Mario Venzago, you may recall, had his contract as music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra suddenly not renewed in 2009, after several years there that were, by most accounts, very successful. It was a homecoming for him to return to Baltimore, where he has had a long association, and he also brought interesting, if not quite optimal, readings of two fifth symphonies, by Schubert and Beethoven. Schubert's fifth symphony, a hybrid of Mozartean lightness and daring harmonic shifts, is a piece that should sound like it is playing itself, although that is not necessarily true. Venzago's gestures at the podium gave a sense that he had micromanaged the piece, giving tiny shapes to each individual phrase, and the picture of the forest was lost in the somewhat fussy attention paid to the needles on each pine. Where the work should be buoyant, as in the impeccable recordings by Günter Wand, this performance was buoyant not like a feather on the wind but literally, like a buoy buffeted by choppy water, as Venzago kept the orchestra from bending from a strict tempo and even shifted tempo slightly mid-movement. It had many lovely moments -- airy lightness and some delicate pianissimi in the second movement, a crisp third movement, and many pleasing details throughout -- but did not add up to something memorable.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Baltimore Symphony welcomes conductor Mario Venzago, violinist Baiba Skride (Baltimore Sun, March 20)

Joan Reinthaler, The Baltimore Symphony at Strathmore with violinist Baiba Skride (Washington Post, March 19)

James Bash, Skride torches the Schnitz in Khachaturian concerto with Oregon Symphony (Oregon Music News, March 14)
By contrast, Venzago gave Beethoven's fifth symphony a most unusual reading, full of unexpected surprises, that goes a long way toward a justification for programming a masterpiece whose overexposure makes a bland performance unforgivable. The influence of historically informed performance (HIP) practice was heard in the almost complete removal of vibrato from the strings, as well as in the sometimes jagged articulations and taut tempo choices. In particular, the second movement's Andante con moto was almost as fast as the third movement's Allegro molto that followed it. This is not to say that expressive moments were not played to the hilt, like the forlorn oboe solo that stops the first movement's recapitulation in its tracks. The pacing and the crispness of attack, especially on all those repeated-note motifs (fate's knell or the Austrian secret police knocking at the door, whatever), gave the piece a satisfying urgency, if statements by the full orchestra were not always perfectly unified. Venzago, here as in the Schubert, was scrupulous about moving unimportant parts out of the way, and his attention to detail created a far less episodic result in the Beethoven.

Before the Beethoven, microphone in hand, Venzago gave a warm tribute to the suffering people of Japan, adding that musicians can pray only when they are playing music. To that effect, the BSO offered a moving sort of prayer, the Japanese song Kojo No Tsuki (“The Moon over the Ruined Castle”), which Venzago said came from the Fukushima prefecture, where a damaged nuclear reactor continues to release radiation. As arranged by one of the BSO's double bass players, Jonathan Jensen, it was a somber piece, full of melancholy nostalgia.

This concert will be repeated this evening (March 19, 8 pm), in Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

1 comment:

MUSE said...

Thank you for bringing this wonderful violinist to my attention. I shall keep my eyes on her (and ears too.)